Sunday, 7 August 2011

Project Nim - highly recommended


Project Nim is a documentary about a chimpanzee which was separated from its mother since infancy to be part of a scientific project in 70s America. I think the timing of the screening isn’t a coincidence – it is shown at the same time as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and after seeing Project Nim and the trailer of Rise I do think they are highly related (though perhaps not intentional).  
The film documents Nim’s life from infancy to death, and the people (‘teachers’) who were involved in his life are all interviewed. After seeing the film, I have a strong feeling that humans are indeed the root of all evil – by that I refer to the professor, Herb Terrace, who is a really cold-blooded being who makes use of not only Nim but the people around him. I’m not sure if it’s the intended outcome, but what he says about his vision, his philosophy about the project, and his final abandonment of it (and Nim) all show his cruelty and inhumanity. The other people interviewed don’t seem to have anything good to say about this person either – he even manipulated his student (helper)’s affection, had a brief affair with her and dumped her swiftly. When she left her position after the breakup his only concern was that it would not affect his project. When another helper got hurt, his only worry was that she might sue him. What a bastard.
One thing that these people who helped to raise Nim didn’t seem to realise is that Nim is essentially a chimp with animal instincts. They all tried their very best to raise Nim in a human way, but at the end of the day, Nim became this freakish chimp with animalistic behaviour which made it unsuitable to live with humans, but at the same time it didn’t have the skills to go back to the wild. It is really sad to see Nim and other chimps being sold for medical experiments – although Nim eventually escaped that fate, he was indeed scarred from the experience and the inhumane treatment he received made him violent even to his first caretaker.
I have noticed that I have shifted from ‘it’ to ‘he’ when referring to Nim here – from the documentary I do get the feeling that Nim’s like a human, with emotions and the ability to communicate them to humans, despite Professor Terrace’s argument that his knowledge of sign language does not really mean anything. Animals do have feelings, and when one is raised by humans, you cannot deny its humanness – it is heartbreaking to see Nim making those signs for ‘hug’, ‘eat berry’, ‘Nim want cat’… he definitely has something human in him. However it is exactly human selfishness and cruelty that ruin his life.
I’m going to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes this week, and I anticipate something similar (dramatised of course) – humans cruelly make use of apes and the apes fight back. In a way, though it may be very politically incorrect and I hesitate to say this, I think there’s a colonial allegory there too. Don’t ask me to elaborate! 

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